Things change in schools and in education – that is one certainty among a fog of uncertainty. These changes are rarely immediate changes from one thing to another. Schools are fluid and their changes have a quite lilting, drifting quality. Sometimes, you can orchestrate these changes – these creepings – but sometimes you can only watch idly as they creep around you. Occasionally, you can divert the creep.
Creep is pervasive. Mission Creep is the most well-known example of the process: after a usually successful action, an organisation continues to ‘creep’ away from its guiding principles into less familiar areas, often with catastrophic consequences (says Wikipedia). Like a twig thrown into a river, once it lands it drifts inexorably with the flows of the water and cannot select its own destination, past a certain point. Perhaps examples of this are Academies which have great success, then are expanded beyond their capacity. Perhaps (and I say so as a critical friend) TeachFirst has been guilty of doing something well then expanding so rapidly, they have had a period of time in which they have spread themselves too thinly.
When I started thinking about how ‘change creeps’ in education, I could see it everywhere; it was like The Yellow Wallpaper, where everywhere I turned, there she was, just creeping around me.
Kids’ behaviour creeps. Standards are set high at the start of a term and the children are eager to impress, keen to get noticed, and desirous of approval. Teachers begin consistent, sticking firmly to their own rules. There is no one event which reverses this, and there is no crisis point. As term progresses, behavioural standards creep down. The teachers become fatigued and require twice as much gusto to maintain the same level of consistency. Marking mountains up, meaning promised detentions are easily eschewed in order to tackle the Red Pen Everest. The kids’ creep, feeding off of and supporting ours, symbiotically, also kicks in. They slowly and gradually concentrate less. They gradually take longer to respond to hand signals. Behavioural change creeps.
Individual behaviour works in this way too, I find. Even with children whose behaviour is tumultuous and ‘up-and-down’, it is a creeping more than a bouncing. I think of my own pupils, and of one in particular. Over the course of 6 weeks, his behaviour improves so gradually that it is only in retrospect that I realise the progression. From being a shouter-outer and a playground-rogue, he morphs into a generally placid member of the class, who takes it upon himself to tidy up my desk in a way that is actually helpful. Then, just as gradually as he improves, he peaks, plateaus then starts on the decline. The pleasantries he offers melt into defiant back-chat.
Creep is not contained within the classroom walls. It pervades the whole school, both as a physical place and as a social community. Creep synchronises the emotional life of the school to such a tangible extent that outsiders can read the mood of a school as soon as they step inside. A galvanising meeting can push up everybody’s morale just as easily as a soul-destroying one can crush it. These changes are short term. Creep operates over a longer time, and is the accumulation of the shared emotions that link teachers who may or may not even be interacting with each other. As the term goes on, feelings of contentment can creep up on the staff like a sun tan ; this could be because of the weather, it could be because of successful observations, it could be because of a lack of interference leaving time to just teach and catch up on backlogs, it could be because – for whatever reason – everyone’s kids are acting kindly to each other.
On the negative end, dissatisfaction can creep into every nook and cranny of our schools and a good few years ago, I saw how in one unfortunate school, creep can imbue the school with a quite unshakeable feeling of stress. No one particularly bad thing needs to happen; the staff can just gently cascade into misery and bitching. A school that was once seen as good, or where staff were once treated a certain way, can creep towards negative change when the circumstances change for the people there.
Another domain of creep, and the final one I’ll talk about here, is consensus creep. This operates at the level of pedagogy and professionalism. The goalposts and expectations within education are continuously shifting but slowly; suddenly, you realise things that were once so overbearing have faded without your realising. I was thinking this yesterday about Leona Lewis; whatever happened to her? She just crept away from the limelight without anyone realising. The same thing happened to things like Brain Gym (although like Leona, it still appears on a few people’s personal compilations). Things that are creeping in include a realisation that we move kids too fast through the curriculum, to the detriment of depth. Also creeping in is a new form of expectation for discipline. Cameron keeps going on about it, but unbeknownst to him, teachers are acting in more disciplinary ways already. It is just creeping in. At the same time, other things are creeping out. To my mind, Guided Reading seems to creeping out – my school never did it anyway, but I cannot recall the last time I heard of it as a thing. The ‘Olympic Legacy’ is creeping out of the vernacular of schools, now they have their London 2012 paraphernalia gathering dust in the sports cupboard.
Education changes, but more specifically, education creeps.